donderdag 29 november 2007

Religion and civilization

Fred Reed and Mark Vernon, both, I think, agnostics sympathetic towards religion, have posts up about the role religion plays in art and culture. Mark Vernon reviews a TV series about civilization by Mark Collins, detailing the removal of the religious impulse from art and its preoccupation with the human, and asks:

So art becomes the business of expressing human feeling - perhaps in the direction of nobility like the paintings of David, or in the direction of subterranean depths like the paintings of Goya. But the change does not stop there, for the deeper question Collins raises is whether the exclusively human, borrowing echoes of a religious past, is enough? Why this might be thought a problem is that in the years since David and Goya something further has happened to bring about what now might be called the quintessence of contemporary art - a gleeful, giddy, slightly menacing, slightly amusing fun.

The often wrong, but always worthwhile Fred Reed once again acerbically comments the decline of the West, blaming the sorry state of modern art, music and architecture on scientism:

The scientific habit of mind has killed off both religion and the spiritual wonderings behind so much of art. Thought has become purely materialistic in the philosophical sense. Today among the nominally educated it is regarded as uncouth to mention death or to wonder what might lie beyond. Among many of the less educated a hard and sterile Protestant fundamentalism flourishes, but it is an embittered, brainless thing. One does not easily imagine Jerry Falwell sculpting David or writing sonnets. The Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy was corrupt and venal, but it was magnificent and able to ponder things not expressible in equations. Perhaps it didn’t have truth, but it had style.

Writing a Wagnerian score requires (I think) a sense of the transcendent. To write The Lord of the Rings or to paint Leda and the swan, one need not believe in Norse gods raging in battle against chill skies, or a muscled Zeus throwing thunderbolts, or Pan leering from darkling forests. You need a mind that doesn’t smell of electrical insulation. This, few now have. The sciences are remorselessly literal. They do not admit of transcendence, wonder, or magnificence. People today drink this terrible narrowness with their mother’s milk and seldom get beyond it. They do not know what they have lost.

Thus a desert sunset is not a vast expanse of molten dunes on some unimaginable shore, stretching away in cascades of failing colors to the blue-black of the coming night and hinting of…what? That is the question. What is the wind saying?

No. A sunset is differential refraction, roygbiv, lambda equals, dispersion, water vapor, thermal upwellings caused by…

Reflecting on this brought back memories. I grew up in Oude Pekela, a town of 8,000 inhabitants in the northeast of the Netherlands. Religiously varied - Oude Pekela has a sizeable Roman Catholic community as well as at least three Protestant communities, and neighbouring Nieuwe Pekela has more Protestant communities, including, pretty unique for the rural Netherlands, a Lutheran parish - with, until the late eighties, a strong Communist Party presence as well. In many ways, it's a bleak place. Highly industrialized until the 1960s, particularly paper mills - but the closure of factories brought mass unemployment later on. The town and the surrounding landscape has a peculiar beauty of its own, one you find very rarely in the overcrowded, overurbanized Netherlands - vast, almost treeless plains of black clay cross-sected by straight canals and a big and sometimes menacing sky hanging over it. The architecture of the older farm houses and the old, small working-class homes is beautiful. That of the newer suburbs utterly soulless. Older houses had faces - windows as the eyes, and a door as a mouth - and the face could be friendly, or scowling, or even monstruous. The newer, post-war houses simply do not have the same character, being uniform and utterly forgettable.

In any event, though my parents were not religious at that time (my father would convert to Catholicism much later) I was sent to the Catholic primary school because it was the best school in the town. And the bits and pieces of religious upbringing I received there have contributed decisively to my later development. I recall sitting in church and staring fascinatedly at the monstruous gargoyles at the feet of the images of saints, and at the stern-faced saints themselves (I took a liking to St. Gerard Maiella because, being beardless, he did not look as stern as the others), and at the terrible station of the cross and the stained glass depiction of Christ behind the altar - and this opened a whole horizon to me. Who were these people, and what were the awful times they lived in like? The same with the Biblical stories our teacher used to vividly tell. They opened up a new frontier to me, an idea of a world so much vaster, more frightening and terrible, but also more glorious and beautiful than my village.

(And my fascination with ancient times led to an interest in ancient languages at the Gymnasium, etc. etc.).

As Fred Reed points out, what religion did was to put a narrative structure on our human experience - an idea where we came from, a notion about our current nature, and a hope for a deliverance from sin and evil, and a reconciliation with a merciful God. This narrative structure also in a way linked us with the past, with history, with the artistic achievements of prior generations, it provided for a kind of continuity. It made us into historical creatures. And it is, importantly, humans that are central to this narrative, as created in the image of God.

What, I believe, the Christian religion especially did was to unite the highest aspirations with the lowest points of human experience with the notion of the Son of God becoming flesh and suffering on the cross. Before my current, ongoing conversion to some kind of Christianity, I used to regard catharsis as a very important function of religious ritual and religious art: to purge ourselves of some of our lowest, basest impulses by weaving them into a ritual framework or a narrative structure which nonetheless imposed social cohesion, or integrated them into us as human beings.

There's a passage from Donna Tartt's brilliant novel The Secret History which illustrates this idea very well. Julian Morrow, the classics teacher, discusses the strange beauty of particularly the most ghastly passages of ancient literature:

'Aristotle says in the Poetics,' said Henry, 'that objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art.'
'And I believe Aristotle is correct. After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on the funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar's blood - remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?'
'Death is the mother of beauty,' said Henry.
'And what is beauty?'
'Well said,' said Julian. 'Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.'
I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

Julian continues to compare the Romans and the Greeks - the Romans, for all their pragmatism and logic, yet being strangely vulnerable to all kinds of superstition and foreign religious fads, while the Greeks, in contrast, provided for a place for the mystical, the irrational and the ecstatic in their culture:

'The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism.' He looked at the ceiling for a moment, his face almost troubled. 'Do you remember what we were talking about earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?' he said. 'It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.'
We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open; I was aware of every breath I took.
'And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.'

The terrible brokenness of being human - to which religion, any religion, is an answer - lies of course in the contradiction between our notion of the Divine and our animal flesh, between our universal intuition of morality and our universal failure to follow it, and the ensuing alienation between us and the natural world that surrounds us on the one hand, and between us and God and our fellow man on the other. Religion, and genuine art, are both ways to escape this brokenness for a while - to approach, momentarily, the Other - whether that be another human being or God. To, just for a moment, break through the walls that seperate us from that (Him) we long for so much.

I still believe this notion has a lot to say for it. And I'll also cheerfully assent to the central message of Christianity being true. There is an idea that one cannot have both. That to regard religion or art as a social phenomenon, or to interpret it through an aesthetic prism, cannot be reconciled with adherence to a central religious doctrine. I think that idea is wrong.

So, I think that in this fashion, religion and art as activities go hand in hand; that art in a way is an expression of a religious impulse.

That doesn't, of course, mean that being religious is necessary for appreciating art. But what, I think, is necessary is some notion of the transcendent, some notion of there being more to the universe than the whirl of atoms, of us being ultimately at home in the universe. As Fred Reed puts it:

Scientism and religion are brothers in intent; they have just chosen different roads. Both are evasions.

Religion sees life as a passage, scientism as a condition; religion as a moral order, scientism as a material order. Thus the religious person thinks we come into this strange world (from where?), reside briefly, and leave for somewhere else (where?). Death seems to him a fact of some interest. It is a leaving. Often it is frightening. He makes up stories to relieve his unease. He may believe that a loving god put us here and awaits us, despite an immense lack of evidence.

The adherent of scientism comforts himself by insisting that the questions don’t exist. We didn’t come from anywhere and aren’t going anywhere. We are just momentary arrangements of matter, like bubbles in a test tube. The bubble bursts, the ripples subside, and we are simply…gone. There is no evidence for this either.

Finally, we have divorced ourselves almost completely from the natural world, and even more for respect for it. Once we were specks on the landscape. The mountains were vast and forbidding; one walked in them with a sense of awe, or at least of being small in a large place. You could lie beside a brook babbling through a forest and reflect that the world contained things other than the trivialities of human existence. This produced I think a tranquility that made for contemplation, a frame of mind conducive to what we call tiresomely “creativity.”

Now we are become a blight on the earth, with the tinker-toy minds of chemists, rushing about in noisy machines and leaving beer cans everywhere. I do not see how a Vivaldi or Corot or Milne can exist under such conditions. And they don’t.

There is a strange contradiction at the heart of modern atheism: on the one hand, there is a strong tendency to assert the moral autonomy of the human individual; to place the human center-stage, including a laudable defense of universal human rights, equality between genders and races, etc. On the other hand, the metaphysics that often accompanies modern atheism tends to utterly undercut this: the notion that consciousness and ideas are a product of matter, that human beings are physical beings in a physical world, etc. The latter does not necessarily accompany atheism - but it often does. Few atheists would assent to dualism or idealism.

The "Copernican revolution" of scientism - the decentering of human beings, being ultimately a rather accidental outcome of natural evolutionary processes around a backwater sun in a rather unremarkable place of an indifferent universe - sits ill with some of the central values that humanism defends, to the extent that some popular ideas (the notion of a possible reduction of the normative realm - which includes reason, moral values, etc. - to the non-normative workings of the human brain; or the notion of "memetics") have the potential to undercut humanism.

This is something I am missing often with pro-science criticisms of postmodern relativism. Because it is not just the fashionable Francophone philosophers who have contributed to the demise of the notion of the human individual as endowed with reason and able to take control over his own circumstances. Scientism - from the unmourned behaviorist paradigm to the hopefully soon equally dead notion of memes - has done its own share.

But, ultimately, I disagree with Fred Reed on fingering scientism as the culprit while agreeing, at least to an extent, with his bleak view on postmodern civilization. Because scientism, as the misuse of science as a basis for a moral or ontological philosophy, is much more a product of (post)modernity than a cause. It is a refuge - an arid, poor, ramshackle refuge - after the death of all the great ideologies and narratives that provided a place for our individual fates within a greater whole. From the political - the old bourgeois order died ideologically on the killing fields of the First World War, and the new socialist order died ideologically on other killing fields not long after - to the religious, to the nation, to the family as a social institution, etc. We're atomized cogs in the wheels that sustain a social order which sustains that atomization. Until, at the margins, something new emerges. I am confident Christianity will play its part in that, and hopeful that it will do so as a guiding light rather than as political power.

dinsdag 20 november 2007

Back soon

Will post something new shortly. Pretty busy with the moment with preparing a presentation for next week. Meanwhile Victor Reppert has a good series up concerning torture. Disconcerting to see that civilization has declined to such an extent that not torturing people is apparently something in need of argument.

zaterdag 10 november 2007

God is for suckers?

Somehow (I don't recall how) I came across this weblog and the title immediately rang strangely accurate to me - though probably not in the way intended by the writers of said blog (rather standard middlebrow U.S. liberal boilerplate- probably not the cream of the atheist blogosphere's crop, so to say). In a very important way, God is for suckers. Jesus associated with publicans, prostitutes, the lame and the crippled, and had the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of provincial hicks for disciples. If you're comfortable and confident about your own moral compass, your deepest and innermost desires, your relationship to your fellows and society as a whole, if you regard yourself as a reasonably good person - and humanity as a whole as intrinsically inclined to the good, if you're not, in some relevant way, a loser, then Christianity is perhaps not very interesting to you. Your lot is with Athens (or perhaps, rather, Rome) than with Jerusalem.

"Just like you don't believe in Zeus..."

William Vallicella the Maverick Philosopher dissects a familiar argument raised by A.C. Grayling, finding that there is really no argument there. The argument, of course, is the following:

Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.

This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one (or a very few) of the gods that have ever been claimed to exist.

No reasonably orthodox Christian believes in Aphrodite or the rest of the Olympian deities, or in Ganesh the Elephant God or the rest of the Hindu pantheon, or in the Japanese emperor, and so endlessly on - and officially (as a matter of Christian orthodoxy) he or she must say that anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods".

The atheist adds just one more deity to the list of those not believed in; namely, the one remaining on the Christian's or Jew's or Muslim's list.

William Vallicella argues that any conclusion about the supposed irrationality of religion simply cannot follow from the premises in a non-question-begging manner. But I think the point can be attacked from another angle. Namely, it contains the premise that there is a relevant analogy between the atheist's disbelief and my disbelief in, say, Wotan or Zeus. And this, I think, is false.

For an atheist, a theist's idea of God may be an illusion, a Super-daddy or an imaginary friend which we project our hopes and fears on - or, to Marx, the "heart of a heartless world", a projection that fills the God-shapes hole that our alienation from nature, from the product of our labour, and ultimately from our fellow man leaves. Marx, of course, was way ahead of the current crop of "rationalist" atheists. The centrality of the notion of alienation, and the eschatological hope for a future where the divisions of class, race, gender that cut across society will be removed, is not that unbiblical. The difference is that I would believe that there is a God to fill the God-shaped hole so central in man's hopes and longing... But anyway, to an atheist, there is no divine reality we are somehow mistaken about - there is no divine reality, period.

And, granted Grayling's not wholly undubious point that "anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods"" no atheist would state that Christians (or Muslims, or Hindus) somehow pursue a false God. As there is no "true God" to blasphemize against. The notion of a "false god" implies some kind of resemblance to the genuine article. It presents itself as a god - but in some crucial aspects the notion of it, and of our relations to is, differs from the true one, leading us astray. Similarly the notion of "antichrist" implies a resemblance to Christ - but leading us astray to very much the opposite of Christ and the Kingdom of God He preached. (I think the history of Christianity has a lot of candidates for possible antichrist status).

I think it is perfectly possible for a Christian to state that the religious experiences of the ancient Greeks, or polytheistic ancient Germans, are real, and that they ultimately include an intuition of the Divine - but that lacking God's self-revelation in Biblical narrative and ultimately culminating in God's incarnation in Christ, those religious experiences remained imprisoned in anthropomorphic metaphors and ultimately led to an instrumental, manipulative relationship between Deity and man which is the opposite of what God's intends us to do (magical thinking, manipulative sacrifice - compare the way state religion in the Roman empire becomes something wholly instrumental, a ritual way of signifying one's loyalty to the state by sacrificing to a deified emperor).

With the usage of "anthropomorphic" above I of course mean that the Gods of the Greek, Roman, and Germanic pantheons are limited beings, existing within the universe rather than the universe existing in God. A new - and from the perspective above, better conception breaks through with the Ahura-Mazda of Zarathustra, the singular Deity of Plato and Xenophanes, and the one God of Israel. A Christian would be bound to assert the validity of the covenant between God and Israel, of course. But I don't think it would be false to state that I and the ancient Greek monotheists and Zoroastrians, and, probablym, at least some Hindus and Buddhists, essentially believe in the same God in that it would be possible to intelligibly disagree on our beliefs about God. The relationship between my religious beliefs and the three Abrahamic faiths is, again, qualitatively more intimate.

So, I have no reason to state that, say, the religious experiences of the ancients engaging in the Dionysian mystery religions were wholly false in that they did not correspond to a religious transcendent reality. I can quite coherently assert the validity of religious reality encountered there while at the same time adhering to the Biblical revelation of God (and perhaps, rejecting polytheism as idolatry dangerous precisely because of the kernels of truth encountered there, and caught in misleading metaphors).

(If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis at some point remarks on the widespread agrarian religions containing the notion of a dying and rising God - Balder, Dionysus, etc. - seeing them as distant echoes of the death and resurrection of Christ - the momentous event in Palestine creating ripples across time and space, as it were. But of course, death and new life are encountered in a daily fashion in the harvest and the new growth, the passage of the seasons, etc. Here, too, perhaps Christ unites the particular and the universal - actually dying and being resurrected while at the same time being a sign of God's participation in the dying and living of humanity and all of nature, and more specifically of the death of the old world and the coming of a new one - one which is still, to Christians, an object of hope.)

So, I think that the notion that the atheist rejects just one more God, in addition to the theist's rejection of a whole number of Gods, is mistaken: I precisely do not reject Dis or Dionysus in a way analogous to the way the atheist rejects the Biblical God.

woensdag 7 november 2007

Historical linguistics and process philosophy

My paper on Whitehead and historical linguistics, which I had referred to before, is now on-line. I had to cut more than a third - though a lot of that was fluff, and I think the end result is more focused (if denser).

Reading it again on the way home from work today, I was pretty happy with it. Though I think my attempt to have my Platonic pie and emergentistically eat it was a bit cheeky :-). I only referred briefly to some of the possible consequences that a Whiteheadish view on historical linguistics might have on the assignments of genetic markers of identity. I'll probably have a presentation at my department at the end of the month where I might elaborate a bit more.

vrijdag 2 november 2007

Koos Kombuis' Swart September

A song which I find myself listening to again and again currently is the South African singer/songwriter Koos Kombuis' Swart September (Black September). The song (lyrics, translation and helpful comments here) is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there's the language. Which is Afrikaans, but shot through with anglicisms. This in a way ties in wonderfully with one of the main themes of the song (written in the final years of the Apartheid regime), which is problematizing national and ethnic identity in South Africa, and problematizing place, the ownership of land, and the dispossessedness of large groups of people.

In one verse, Koos Kombuis comments on precisely the linguistically heterogenous nature of the language:

Van Tafelbaai tot in Transvaal
loop hensoppers weer deesdae kaal
Maar is jy wit, bruin, swart of geel
kak almaal in die symste taal
Sou jy haar nog liefhe, die ongerymde moedertaal
besef jy sy's met clones en pidins landwyd op die paal

In the linked comments, "StrawberryFrog" points to the usage of the word "symste" (< English same but with an Afrikaans superlative suffix).

One of the main concerns of the lyric is the connection between people and their land, their home, the place they live in. This is evident right in the first lines:

Plant vir my 'n Namibsroos, verafgelee Welwitschia
harvestig hom in Hillbrow en doop hom Khayelitsha

But also in the way the lyric describes the disenfranchised, dispossessed Blacks, who "shuffle along the walls" (skuifel langs die mure) "without passes" (sonder pas). But most strongly, and ingeniously, in the final two verses, which use the melody of the then-national hymn of South Africa, die stem van Suid-Afrika. A national hymn, of course, functions as proclaiming one's belonging to a nation, and that of a nation to a piece of land, but Koos Kombuis' lyrics shatter all that, pointing out the divisions among South Africans right in the first line (uit die blou van ons twee skole), the disconnect between people and place in the following ones (uit die diepte van ons huimwe, uit ons ver-verlate homelands). Kombuis notes how the forced racial divisions, the reservation of homelands for the blacks, etc. reduce that population to squatters - but are the dispossessed blacks the only squatters Kombuis means? What about the coloureds, the whites, with their own differing ethnic origins far away?

Uit die blou van ons twee skole
Uit die diepte van ons huimwe
Uit ons ver-verlate homelands
Waar die tsotsies antwoord gee
Oor ons afgebrande skole
Met die kreun van honger kinders
ruis die stem van al die squatters
van ons land, Azania.
Ons sal traangas, ons sal Treurnicht,
ons sal klipgooi als jy vra,
ons sal dobbel in Sun City
ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika

The theme is highlighted by the use of the two toponyms in the final lines: Azania, the name for South-Africa in usage among the black radical left, which is associated with the voice of the dispossessed "squatters", the defying of teargas and "Treurnicht" (a wonderful dual reference to an ultra-conservative white politician and the verb for to "not cry, not mourn", cf. the teargas), and the throwing of stones. Then, Suid-Afrika, associated with gambling in Sun City. Which, as StrawberryFrog remarks, is an activity associated with the privileged, the well-to do - not the black kids throwing rocks in the previous lines.

There's a fascinating layeredness here. There's first the dissonance between the melody and its associations (the national hymn) and the lyrics, and then the tension between the two voices speaking in the final lines, both of which proclaiming their loyalty to their country (als jy vra, ons vir jou).

There's a way in which I think central to art, poetry, aesthetics, is the tension between contrasts, or as Whitehead wrote: "All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity". That's how language works: the contrasts between sounds, the marked and the unmarked - but also the contrast between codes, exhibited throughout Kombuis' lyric, the unmarked Afrikaans and the marked English words with which the former is interspersed. But the lyric offers a host of other opportunities to study the usage of linguistic and semantic contrasts and their employment to build the lyric. Take the lines:

Die aand was vrolik om die vure
Gatiep was olik by die bure

which sketch an apparently merry, carefree scene. But then the following line:

Die tyres het gebrand
daar aan Mannenberg se kant

Note how first of all Mannenberg is there, the other place, not here. And then the ambiguous die tyres het gebrand which could, as StrawberryFrog points out, refer to the usage of burning tyres in roadblocks, or to necklacing. With the latter possibility, the usage of a passive clause is all the more shocking because it is so euphemistic. The "tyres" are mentioned to burn, rather than people; and the subject who set the tyres alight is not mentioned. There is a very disconcerting (and effective) tension here between linguistic form and meaning.

(And why here the English tyres, instead of Afrikaans die bande? Is the usage of an English verb here another way to dissociate the "we" in the verse from the Other, the events "over there", in Mannenberg? But perhaps this is too far-sought).

The following two lines repeat this tension:

Al die volk was hoenderkop
die Caspers het vol guns gestop

Depicting the drunkenness of the merry crowd and the presence of Caspir armoured cars full of guns. Note again the passive: whoever owns and controls the armoured cars and the guns is not mentioned. They seem to be mentioned as just being there in an almost offhand manner.

Then, the lyric radically and shockingly shifts perspective (which is, in the song, accompanied by a change in melody):

En die vroue by die draad
het eerste die gedruis gehoor
Tjank maar Ragel oor jou kind
die boere het hom doodgemoer

The sudden usage of the active clause here - Die boere het hom doodgemoer - is very brutal, in-your-face, compared to the hints towards such events in the earlier lines. Where the armoured police cars, the burning tyres possibly indicating a necklacing, and all that were "far away" and subjectless before, the depiction of the anguished women at the wire, the murder of one of their children by very much named and present agents, is a slap in the face.

The text is full of such counterpositions: the one, for example, between the petty complaints of the man in the main singer's perspective, who has to wait a long time to get his fries after a night out (In Langstraat, waar die cafes nog oop is / tot laat in die angry nag / het ek myn dolla slap tsjips gaan koop / ek moes half an hour staan en wag) and the worries of the passless blacks, consigned to the third class in public transport, in the lines before (die swarte sonder pas / skuifel langs die mure / verlustig hom in derde klas).

I'm not getting tired of this song anytime soon.